Robot. Sto rozumů, ed Jitka Čejková, Vysoká škola chemicko-technologická, 448 pp, CZK380, ISBN: 978-8075920621
This year marks one hundred years since the first theatre performance of Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, a tragicomic dystopian science fiction in three acts preceded by a dramatic prologue. (English editions do not always preserve the original structure: in the 1999 Methuen edition translated by Cathy Porter and Peter Majer, the play is simply divided into four acts.) The action takes place on an island inhabited by a small group of humans – a managerial team of six men accompanied by two women – who are in charge of a gigantic factory that produces robots and ships them all over the world. That world is ultimately taken over by the rebellious humanoids, originally designed to serve humanity as obedient slaves.
First published in the winter of 1920, the play’s subject was prefigured in a number of short stories written jointly and severally by the Čapek brothers (Karel’s brother Josef was a painter, but also a writer and translator in his own right). Perhaps the most important of these stories is “The System” (1918). In it a factory owner called Ripraton unfolds his vision of an ideal factory in which men would be turned into perfect workers of the “Operarius Utilis Ripratoni” type by being deprived of their souls and appetites (including their desire for women). Needless to say, Ripraton’s project fails. R.U.R. may have also been inspired by the “electric dolls” of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 play Poupées Électriques, even though Čapek himself was no fan of Futurism.
His own play soon became an international success. It ran on Broadway from October 1922 to February 1923, with Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien playing key robots, and when the first British robot, called Eric, was built in 1928 by William Richards and Alan Reffell, it bore the letters R.U.R. on its steely chest. In spite of all that, R.U.R. would probably be forgotten by now but for one thing: it introduced the word “robot” as a brand new name for the artificial creature at the centre of the play – coined by Josef Čapek in response to Karel’s initial suggestion of “labor”, it was derived from the Czech word for indentured labour or hard, dull work (robota). Within a decade or so of the play’s first appearance, its performances and translations managed to seed the word (and its cognates such as robotize and robotization) into as many languages as you can think of.
Robot. Sto rozumů (The Robot. One Hundred Reasons) was published last year in Prague mainly to commemorate and celebrate the play’s centenary but also to advertise the international ALIFE conference scheduled for Prague in July 2021 but in the event taking place virtually. (The book is in Czech but information about it and about the conference is available in English on the www.robot100.cz website.) It is a rather remarkable edition, published by the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague (the editor’s alma mater as well as my own), but before I describe the volume in more detail, let me give a brief sketch of the central issue in Čapek’s play as far as Robot is concerned: the nature and import of Čapek’s robots. They are mass-produced humanoid beings designed to carry out all sorts of work that humans would prefer not to have to do themselves, from hard manual labour to office work (there are “rough” and “soft” varieties of robot accordingly). They both are and are not robotic: lacking emotions, they appear somewhat robotic in their speech and demeanour in comparison with humans, but their nature nevertheless is not robotic as we would nowadays understand the term. They are neither mechanical nor electronic machines but something much more miraculous – living creatures made from an alternative organic matter, a life based on a chemistry different from ours. (I call them miraculous because contemporary science is nowhere near creating anything comparable – the closest we have to artificial life being presumably Craig Venter’s bacterium Mycoplasma laboratorium or, as it is also known, Synthia.)
According to an account presented in the play, the invention of these robots took place in two steps. First, there was the discovery of an alternative chemical basis for life by a “mad scientist” called Rossum (the surname is a wordplay on the Czech word for reason, mind or sense) who later fails to create complex living beings out of the new live matter. Old Rossum’s initial discovery and his later efforts to re-create life in all its complexity are driven by the theoretical scientist’s ardent materialism and his desire to do away, once and for all, with the idea of God as the creator of life. It is only when old Rossum’s ideas and ideals are discarded as outdated and irrelevant – by his own nephew, the young Rossum – that the original discovery can be turned into a useful invention and a highly profitable enterprise.
Young Rossum approaches the problem of creation from a distinctively pragmatic, “engineering” perspective: the viability of the new life form becomes a question of ruthless cost-benefit analysis. What do the robots need to be like, minimally speaking, given what we need them for (slave labour) and also given the need to make them as quickly and cheaply as possible? Compared with the humans in their supposedly superfluous complexity, young Rossum’s robots are deliberately “simplified” – stripped of everything unnecessary for the successful fulfilment of their allotted tasks. (Why would a worker need to feel joy? To play the violin?) The robots can carry out their work far more perfectly than humans: perfection here being understood as both efficiency (one robot replaces two and a half human workers) and cheapness, due to the robots’ minimal needs – for example, you can feed them anything organic, no matter how tasteless. On the downside, the robots pay for their work-oriented design with rather short life spans (in this they seem to be precursors of the replicants in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner) – the better-quality robots are said to live for twenty years at best before they get “worn out” in an unspecified way. Most importantly, Rossum’s robots are also deprived of the ability to reproduce, both in terms of the biological hardware (the sexual “glands”) and of the software (emotions and desires) necessary for sexual reproduction. Interestingly, outward sexual characteristics or appearances are not discarded. The human owners of robots tend to view certain kinds of work as essentially gendered. As robot-buying customers they demand that robot maids, shop assistants and typists look female. (There were no words in Čapek’s Czech to mark the distinction between sex and gender. The word pohlaví or sex – taken to be either male or female – is therefore used indiscriminately in the play. But even so, on close reading, the play’s robots can be read as a metaphor, however unintentional on Čapek’s part, for a different kind of human-like existence that would be biologically asexual and socially queer or gay.)
The plot of the play seems to hinge on two different but related problems: first, the robots’ existence seems to appal at least some of the humans who therefore advocate for more human-like improvements on their behalf (in the play it is women who find robots or their predicament appalling; the heroine Lady Helen Glory succeeds in talking the male scientist into surreptitiously making a new line of more humanised robots). Second, there seems to be a problem with reproduction, not just in the case of the robots but also of the humans. For an unknown reason, humanity liberated by robots from hard toil and supposedly enjoying an easy life in a world of plenty seems unwilling or unable to reproduce. The resulting strife and misunderstandings among humans and between humans and robots lead to the extermination of humanity (bar a single man, the “worker” among the managers). Even the victorious robots, however, seem to be inexorably headed for extinction as they do not possess the means of their own (re)production. At the very end of the play there comes a twist followed by a kind of happy ending (for the robots): the new line of robots have apparently been endowed with a little extra something that enables them to move beyond mere rational self-awareness toward care for one another, desire for one another and love.
The Robot editor, Jitka Čejková, is herself a chemical engineer specialising in artificial life; her research looks at droplets of decanol behaving as liquid robots in certain solutions. Unlike others (for example Kirsten Shepherd-Barr in her Science on Stage) she disagrees with the view that R.U.R. is outdated, either in its science or in its attitude to science, and she refuses to treat it as a museum piece. To her the play still has a lot to say about the nature of human life as well as about science and all sorts of “robotry”. Using the centenary as an opportunity to test her hunch in a radical way, she asked a variety of people from a wide range of scientific and scholarly disciplines to read or re-read the play and to supply “reasons” for its continuing relevance and/or for a particular interpretation. The volume edited by her consists of a reprint of the first edition of R.U.R. followed by Čapek’s own defence of his “wetware” robots from 1935 against the then current misconceptions of them as mechanical, made of steel and steered by electromagnetic waves. This authorial defence is in turn followed by exactly a hundred “reasons” for considering R.U.R. afresh, typically in the form of a short essay on a particular aspect of the play that attracted the contributor’s attention or piqued their scientific or scholarly interest.
The contributors to the volume come from all over the world (about a third are Czechs and about a third are based in the Czech Republic, with only a partial overlap between the two categories). They range from Rodney Brooks (the world-renowned roboticist and co-founder of Rethink Robotics and iRobot: think Roomba) to the English novelist and non-fiction writer Simon Mawer. In between – one could almost say between the polar extremes of CP Snow’s “two cultures”: the future-oriented, problem-solving engineer in control of things as against the inward or even backward-looking “literary intellectual” fixated on words and metaphors – there are contributions from different kinds of roboticists (biorobotics, molecular robotics, evolutionary robotics), physicists and chemists (macromolecular chemistry, nanochemistry, physical chemistry, artificial life), biologists (evolutionary and synthetic biology, environmental biology, astrobiology), medical scientists (nutrition, endocrinology), IT and computer scientists (machine learning, natural language processing, artificial intelligence), but also from scholars and publicists in social sciences (economy, history and history of science, political science) as well as humanities (art history, drama, linguistics, philosophy). Last but not least, there are also contributions from a number of “creatives” (a graphic and fashion designer, a songwriter, a sculptor, a film director) obsessed with artistic making rather than with knowledge or utility.
The beauty of this book stems primarily from the fact that nearly every single contribution is highly accessible in layman’s terms and yet illuminating when it comes to discussing not just various aspects of Čapek’s play but also the issues one encounters when trying to understand life in general as well as human life in particular (and in a particular context). This includes the specific problems encountered by researchers when trying to investigate and re-create life in a laboratory or at least to reproduce particular aspects of it (such as self-assembly, self-orientation and self-awareness, the ability to maintain and reproduce itself in perpetuity, the ability to evaluate one’s environment as auspicious or inauspicious to life, to adapt and to evolve, the ability to communicate with others) or when aiming to determine the minimal requirements for life. But it also includes the conceptual difficulties entailed in trying to define life not as narrowly but as comprehensively as possible. Here humanities and social sciences come to the fore. The humanities are uniquely qualified to provide conceptual clarity as regards the ontological (what is life? in what sense can something be said to be alive?), epistemic (how can I tell the difference between a human and a robot?) and ethical issues linked to artificial life (the discussion in the play on why robots need to feel at least some pain has a surprising relevance to issues of animal welfare in industrial farming, for example).
The social sciences supply the wider context for the more narrowly focused efforts of engineers, which is vital if we are not to overlook (and then suffer from) various social, economic and environmental consequences of our discoveries and inventions – something we are beginning to understand all too well in relation to climate change, pollution and the extinction of life on earth but also in relation to the growing political polarisation of societies in the West. Would it have been better for humanity, as one of the characters in the play suggests, if Rossum’s robots had not been designed as universal but had been given a particular nationality? (It is part of Czech national mythology that we are a doveish people compared to the more hawk-like Germanic nations. One of the contributions looks at Czech words other than “robot” with similar international presence, such as “pistol” (from the Czech píšťala via the French pistole) and “howitzer” (from the Czech houfnice via the German Haubitze and the Dutch houwitser) – neither example exactly pacifist. Some of the most interesting contributions have to do with the environmental consequences of overproduction (not least in relation to the idea of pollinating crops by insect-like swarms of tiny robots), or with the problem of labour exploitation and human (un)employment in an era of increasing automatisation. Last but not least, the artists contributing to the volume show there is another way of approaching the “problem of life”, trying not so much methodically to understand it as to embody it or express it in the special kind of performance we call the work of art.
But there is a different aspect to this collection, less obvious at first but possibly even more important and inspiring. The book bridges the divide between scientists and non-scientists in a particularly ingenious way, by creating a space in which the “science people” and the “arts and humanities people” can share and collaborate. Here they can recognise one another as citizens of the same world in spite of their respective niches and specialties. And, moreover, here they can communicate in a common language – the relatively simple “idiom” of the play – in spite of living in many different places, coming from sometimes very different cultures and speaking many different languages (and technical jargons).
It seems clear that as a practising scientist and also a science communicator used to translating from a minor language (Czech) into English and back, the editor was ideally situated to mediate between different tribes. In this case she was able to invite “futurist” scientists and engineers – trained to take metaphors apart, literally, and reassemble them as things – to look back on an almost forgotten old play and to feed on its outrageous metaphors. The essays she received in response regularly register their authors’ surprise at the persisting power and relevance of Čapek’s imagination and foresight. The supposedly backward-looking “natural Luddite” re-emerges from the scientists’ own rereadings as a prophetic writer capable of prefiguring scientific but also social conundrums still valid a century after his play was written. A revealing tension arises in the volume between those contributors reading the play literally as being about robots (and about how to prevent them from malfunctioning) and others reading it metaphorically: as a parable about humans allowing themselves – out of greed – to mistreat other living creatures (including humans) as mere high-functioning things, with all the indignities and suffering that such subjugation entails. Does the innovative technology hype often not serve just to disguise highly profitable exploitation?
But the volume also works in the other direction: Čapek’s play benefits greatly from being discussed from an uncommon variety of perspectives, most of them going beyond traditional literary criticism or literary-historical commentary. What at first may feel old-fashioned, jarring, nonsensical or incidental in the play – the awkward nature of the one human sexual relationship; the initial comedy in an otherwise tragic play that has to do with the heroine’s inability to tell the difference between humans and robots; the relation between overproduction and human infertility; or the robots’ inability to cook a tasty meal – often comes unexpectedly alive when transposed into a new context. This context may be provided by current experiments in robotics or synthetic biology, by medicine, by environmental or economic concerns, by issues encountered in natural language processing, queer theory or astrobiology.
Watching recent scifi movies such as The Martian with Matt Damon or George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky or reading books such as James Lovelock’s recent Novacene, one often gets the feeling that we are being quietly but systematically prepared for the necessity of giving up on Earth. One of the essays in Robot, contributed by Olaf Witkowski, a researcher in AI and AL based in Tokyo, takes from Čapek’s play precisely the ultimate suggestion that AL robots could carry on sufficiently human-like life in the absence of humanity. Since the Earth is doomed anyway – one way or another, sooner or later – it is high time we devoted all our efforts either to creating a superhuman cyborg capable of leaving the Earth for good and colonising space or, better, started “transposing” human life into the form of AL robots capable of having robo-babies and surviving independently in the harshest conditions in space. Are you ready to give up Earth and be refashioned into a living robot? If not, you had better start considering it. Imagine yourself as one of a glorious space fleet of swarming ant-like myrmidons …
What might be a good model for such an AL robot, our heir in space? Mistranslations and distortions of Čapek’s play (especially in Paul Selver’s 1923 English translation) are uncovered when contributors (reading the play in translation) base their arguments on organisms that do not actually appear in the original text. Thus Čapek’s rotifer – the very first of many organisms that old Rossum tried to re-create – is mistranslated by Selver as a “bug” which is then re-interpreted to mean an insect (a beetle) and this leads to an argument about ants as a much more appropriate model for an AL robot. (The rotifer is translated as amoeba by Porter and Mayer, which is a much better fit although still not a perfect match: rotifers are multicellular, amoebas unicellular.) Other commentaries, especially by Japanese researchers, provide fascinating insights into significant differences between cultures as robots seem to carry much more positive associations in Japan than in the Czech Republic. Last but not least, the women contributors, especially the scientists among them, provide an entertaining commentary on the rather helpless female characters in the play, both human and robot, who happen to be embodiments of unreason, naivety, emotiveness bordering on hysteria, blind impulse and superstition, pointing to the one aspect of Čapek’s play that is perhaps beyond rescue.
Jitka Čejková’s Robot. Sto rozumů reveals what an interdisciplinary approach to a topic can accomplish provided the right kind of “meeting space” is opened up in which the specialist, whether in science or the humanities, is invited to address others as fellow humans first, inhabitants and co-creators of a shared world. In this case the meeting space was opened up magnificently by Čapek’s R.U.R. and its robots, now one hundred years old.
Alena Dvořáková is a translator, editor and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Beatlebone, and most recently The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. She regularly contributes reviews and essays to the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).